This past summer I found myself reviewing a number of classic early Anabaptist works as I researched and wrote a chapter on Anabaptist eschatology. As I researched and read I was struck by an unrelated phenomenon—the prevalence of the creeds in several of these writings. In the four years since I first began attending a Mennonite Church, I have sometimes heard Anabaptists referred to as non-creedal Christians. It is certainly true that, when asked to describe what it means to be Anabaptist, most Anabaptists will understandably give an answer that prioritizes doctrines and practices that are not common to the majority of Christian churches, particularly pacifism or credobaptism. Similarly, when drawing doctrinal boundaries around their churches (something they were as ready to do as the state churches, though not at the point of a sword), Anabaptists have tended to appeal to Scripture directly, since its authority superseded any creeds and confessions, however valuable.1 Nevertheless, insofar as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be said to summarize the essentials of the Christian faith, the earliest Anabaptists upheld these teaching with only a few exceptions.
Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists.2 This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed.3
The most enthusiastically creedal of the early Anabaptists was undoubtedly Balthasar Hubmaier. He referred often to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith. He considered acquiescence to and understanding of these articles a prerequisite for baptism and included them in his Christian Catechism, published in early 1527.4 During his 1526 imprisonment in Zurich, he even produced a devotional writing centered entirely around the Apostles’ Creed. He expanded upon the creed’s articles and transformed it into a prayer by changing the pronouns for God from the third to the second person, expressing the comfort and hope that he found in these doctrines.5 He also found the Apostles’ Creed polemically useful and appealed to it to advocate against the doctrine of transubstantiation and for believers’ baptism.6 As far as Hubmaier was concerned, the form of Christianity for which he advocated was not only compatible with these twelve articles, it was in fact more faithful to them than Catholic, Zwinglian, or Lutheran forms of Christianity.
The Hutterite Theologian Peter Riedemann likewise drew extensively on the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote his Confession of Faith during his imprisonment in the early 1540s. The Creed formed the scaffolding of the first part of the confession, as he elaborated on each clause: his beliefs on God the Father, the creation of Heaven and earth, Christ the son, the incarnation, and so forth. In choosing this framework, Riedemann appealed to many beliefs he held in common with his captors, but he also provided a distinctly Anabaptist gloss on these beliefs, emphasizing the importance of gathering a church without spot or wrinkle.7 He then went on to elaborate the points where Hutterite teaching diverged, including believers’ baptism, community of goods, and opposition to warfare.
Hymnody has long been a method of doctrinal formation for Anabaptists, and the second hymn of the Ausbund provided the faithful in Switzerland with the opportunity to rehearse the teachings of the creeds. The hymn is described as “the Christian faith, in song form,” and consists of three verses, one for each person of the Trinity. It appears to be an attempt to harmonize the two principal Christian creeds: it contains elements unique to the Apostles’ Creed, such as Christ’s descent into hell, as well as to the Nicene Creed, such as the description of Christ as “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the mention of baptism. At times, it elaborates further than either Creed. Nearly half of the stanza on God the Father lists “things visible” he has created—plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, and humans—before concluding with a mention of “things invisible.”8
The first generation of Anabaptists all converted as adults, after having already received some amount of Christian spiritual formation. These creeds formed part of the foundation that they brought with them into their new understanding of Christianity. Even as they were foundational, however, they were largely taken for granted—unlike nonresistance or believers’ baptism, the creeds were never under attack by either Catholics or magisterial Protestants. The creeds, then, could be seen as a quieter, less visible part of early Anabaptist identity—not particularly useful to distinguish Anabaptists from other Christians or explain the persecution they suffered, but nevertheless a useful description of the God in whom they trusted and the future for which they hoped.
1 They did, however, consistently engage in the work of attempting to formulate confessions that they felt faithfully reflected Scripture. See Karl Koop (ed.), Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527-1660, second edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
2 For more, see C. Arnold Snyder, “Christology” in Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 375-390.
3 Thieleman Janzs van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts et al., 1685). https://books.google.com/books?id=UxmlV7PyedoC Support for the Melchiorite formulation of the Incarnation was already reduced by this point. The seventeenth-century van Braght includes take no firm position but instead acknowledge the longstanding debate among the Brethren on this question and content themselves with describing Christ’s incarnation as miraculous, however unknowable the specifics might be.
4 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Christian Catechism which Everyone Should Know Before He Is Baptized” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 349; Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Form for Baptism in Water of Those Who Have Been Instructed in Faith” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 387.
5 Balthasar Hubmaier, “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith, Phrased in the Form of a Prayer at Zurich on the Water Tower” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 235-240.
6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Letter to Oecolampad” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 70.
7 Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith, translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg (Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 38.
8Ausbund, Das Ist Etliche Schöne Christliche Lieder, Wie Sie in Dem Gefängnis zu Passau in dem Schloss von den Schweizer-Brüdern und von Andern Rechtglaubigen Christen Hin und Her Gedichtet Worden (Lancaster: Johann Baer and Sons, 1856), 5-8. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ausbund/VKZXSla-jKoC
The pamphlet reproduced below was first published by the U.S. Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section in 1976. Collecting papers from a 1974 conference at Koinonia Mennonite Church in Clinton, Oklahoma, In Search of Peace: A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites was a challenging document when it was first published, and it remains so today. The brief chapters below, which readers can navigate to using the table of contents links, will be relevant for historians who concern themselves with Mennonite life in North America during the 1970s, for Mennonite theologians who are search for anti-racist resources in the tradition, and for peace workers and advocates who are interested in the history of Mennonite activism, especially in relation to the Mennonite Central Committee’s Minority Ministries Council.
In a letter from the MCC Canada offices in Winnipeg, Daniel Zehr, director of Peace and Social Concerns, recommends the pamphlet, warning that “To the extent that we white Mennonites have unwittingly or consciously become part of the oppressor, much of what is written here will be disquieting.” My hope in preparing this online edition is that by making its contents accessible this text can resume its disquieting task of unsettling the social and epistemic violence of white supremacy – especially following the Trump administration’s egregious “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” of September 22, 2020.
The Preface by Hubert Schwartzentruber sets the stage for the pamphlet by pointing to the framing idea of the conference from which the contributions are drawn: “Peace is meaningless unless we work to end the reasons for violence.” His closing line ought to resonate even more deeply during this unprecedented year of protest against police violence: “Until there is justice there will be no peace.” Chapter 1 then provides “A Native American View” of peace and justice from Lawrence H. Hart, in which the author argues for a de-mythologizing revision of white history to account for the peace work of American Indians – a task that Hart has since undertaken in his work through the Cheyenne Cultural Center. Following Hart’s call to active peacemaking, Chapter 2 offers “An Afro American View” by Tony Brown. Brown too calls for active peacemaking, while speaking against the racism of the American military and calling for critical peace education against the appeal of the military life. The “Chicano View” provided by Lupe De Leon, Jr. in Chapter 3 further resists American imperialism and militarism, calling members of historic peace churches to “go beyond mere humanistic values and incorporate the values of ‘carnalismo’ into our ethics.” Lastly, Chapter 4 by editor Emma LaRocque outlines “Dynamics of Oppression,” clearly presenting the complex problems of oppression, colonization, and suffering in terms that would have been – and may yet be – accessible to a wide readership of both laypeople and academics. My hope in providing this digital edition is that its contents would be read and considered again today, just as MCC and the authors hoped in the 1970s.
The following is a faithful copy of the original pamphlet. I have preserved the spelling and paragraphing of the original, and indicated pagination in square brackets where the first number refers to the page that has ended and the second refers to the page that follows (excluding blank pages like page 4). I have corrected only a few typos (‘acheive’, ‘succesful’, ‘agressively’, ‘suffiency’) and I have retained the use of underlining that appears in the original. I am happy to provide a PDF scan of the document for anyone who is interested. With the exception of the bibliographical entries, I have also silently updated the spelling of the editor’s name to accord with how it appears on her current faculty profile (which in the document reads ‘Emma LaRoque’). I have also provided a few footnotes with references to sources used in the text, as well as slightly updated contributor bio notes below. Lastly, I would like to thank Joel Nofziger for his editorial efforts, and Laura Kalmar from MCC Canada for permission to reprint this resource.
Dr. Emma LaRocque (now professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba).
Hubert Schwartzentruber (served with his wife June Schwartzentruber at Bethesda Mennonite Church in St. Louis, and then on the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries).
Lawrence H. Hart (a traditional peace chief of the Cheyenne Nation and founder of the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma).
Tony Brown (a baritone singer and peace advocate who teaches at Hesston College and directs the Peacing It Together program).
Lupe De Leon, Jr. (a Mennonite minister and Chicano activist, former co-executive secretary of the Minority Ministries Council, a project within the Mennonite Board of Missions until 1973).
In Search of Peace
A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites
Emma LaRocque, Editor.
Originally published in 1976 by the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section (U.S.).
A man in the Baltic town of Gdańsk sits at the bedside of his son and weeps. It is the morning of October 26, 1709. The young man is ailing with plague which has swept through the region. The son’s affliction follows the death of his mother a few weeks prior in early September. As the son lies dying, the door to the parlour opens and closes. The father sees no one. But the son sets eyes on his mother, bright and clear, a vision of hope who reassures him that he will soon be with her again. They talk for some fifteen minutes. The clock chimes and the door open and closes. The bright spirit of the woman is gone but she leaves behind the promise that the son will join her soon. And true to her word, the disease takes him too.1
In 1709 deadly plague came to the Baltic regions, spreading up along trade and military routes from southern Poland, part of a larger pandemic which spread through central Asia and the Mediterranean in the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Though it took time to reach the city, and despite control measures, Gdańsk did not escape. In March 1709 a family in a district of the old town fell sick, seven people died, and it was evident that the plague had come to the city. Despite this, one pastor still held a sermon to celebrate the city’s escape, perhaps a ‘super spreader’ event in today’s parlance. The disease’s inevitable growth turned into a twenty-five-week epidemic with twenty-five thousand dead in the city out of a population of only fifty thousand.2
The plague hit the Mennonites hard, as it did the rest of the city of Gdańsk. In the records kept by the Flemish branch of the Danzig (Gdańsk) Mennonite church, a total of 409 people died in this community alone in one year, with most of those deaths concentrated in the last quarter. September, the month that the unnamed man’s wife died, was particularly bad, with 6 or 7 people often dying in one day in this small community. By the end of 1709 the figures amounted to 66 men deceased, 72 women, 18 young women and 4 young men. 249 people died who are not listed separately as they were unbaptised, mostly children.3 The extent of loss is evident from the stark reality of the numbers, but rarely do we see material like this document, a letter written by the man to his relatives in Altona. It is a special testimony to experiences of death and illness amongst these Mennonites. The man lost his wife, his two sons, Johann and Cornelius, his sister Sara, his brother Johann, his brother-in-law Paul and his mother. He was left alone to contemplate his grief.
The letter underscores the physical impact of a devastating illness but also the power of emotional deterioration. These experiences paralleling one another. Both seem to break down the boundaries between the spirit and the body, the dead and the living. Visions abound in the story that the man relates to his relatives. The unnamed man described the worsening state of his son saying that he ‘raged’ or was delirious, using the verb ‘rasen’ suggesting he had lost his senses. However, the son’s delirium was mirrored by the derangement of the father who wept at his son’s side and was distraught. His grief had some of the same symptoms of his son.4 And it was in a dissociative state, in a dream, that the father’s grief led to visions which mirrored the fevered conjurings of his son. His brother-in-law Paul appears to him three times—once after his wife’s death, once after his son Johann’s, and once in the summer of 1720. On the second visit, the spirit of Paul says:
“Your son Johann has also come to us. I cannot describe to you the joy, which your wife had with little Cornelius, when she saw Johann arrive.”
These visions and visitations are a strange mix of emotional and physical derangement, disassociation and altered states of consciousness when margins become blurred at moments of stress and conflict. The dream-state seems to be a way in which this man expresses his deep loss and grief, his despair contrasted with the joy of his dead family.5 Telling stories seems to soothe his pain. He retells the dream narrative in his letter but dreams themselves can also be seen as subconscious stories we tell ourselves. The father weeps but Paul tells his brother-in-law that, “Our spirits coalesced in love ( he uses the verb ‘verschmelzen’) and there was the greatest joy.” In the dream where he can contact the other world, the father can touch the blessed happiness of the afterlife. The whole letter is steeped in anguish and despair but also hope and love. Does narrating the pain in these tales ease his grief, or merely make him relive it?
The visiting spirits bring knowledge hidden from living men. The mother’s spectre seems to know who will die, although the brother-in-law Paul is only able to give notice of who has arrived in his spiritual world and does not have news of the future. The man even confesses he had made a strange pact with his relative, a pact which looks something like a devilish deal to know the unknowable—what life after death was like. The writer interjects a warning that this should not be copied by others. There is no suggestion that the pact was to be frowned upon in his case but dealings with the world of spirits were dangerous. That the spirits and dreams coincide with the striking of the clock makes it read like a ghost story and there is an otherworldly element to the narrative.6
The powerful interaction between the living and dead is perhaps surprising in a Mennonite letter, but the vision painted evokes a world of light, love and truth. The brother-in-law’s spirit describes the afterlife as if there were first a waiting room, a cavern to which he goes before he is transported to the community of the blessed. The spirit stresses that the wonderful place he now inhabits is the kingdom of the elect. Yet he also reminds his relative that human action on earth could not affect one’s fate beyond the veil. All the weeping and sighing is useless unless there is an inherent unity with the elect.
The father seems to have a longing for death; there is a glimmer in the letter of the transformation that comes with dying and his desire to join the elect.7 Perhaps he just wished to be with his family again but there was a clear sense of the unity of the true community in the afterlife. The son Cornelius also has a moment of joyous realisation when he feels the symptoms of illness and sees his mother. He shouted:
‘‘Dear father, thank God, I am also now so ill, now I will die, and be with my dear mother. O, if I were only already there.’
These are not the words of a man filled with fear and worry but of expectation at being reunited with his mother. There is something deeply touching and personal in these confessions, the suggestion of the tension in the joy the father should feel in the knowledge that his dead family are in the community of the elect and his conviction that he will perhaps soon join them. After all, he is part of the true church on earth. But yet the letter suggests he is not fully comforted; at the level of individual experience, the chasm still remains between the living and the dead.
This is a profoundly moving letter written in a moment of crisis, laying bare the grief and loneliness of a man nearly all of whose family have died and left him on earth. This is also why it so revealing as it throws up questions about the interplay between death and life, presence and absence, the individual and the community, grief and hope. But it is also in these moments of loss, suffering and emotional crisis that we can examine the threads that kept Mennonite communities together. Particularly striking, is the brother-in-law’s description of the marvellous number of those in the afterlife – more than the sand at the sea or the stars in the sky. The widower without his children though remains, as he says, completely alone.
1 ‘Copeij eines Schreibens aus Danzig’, 1720, Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Small Archives, Box 1733, Folder 2.
2 Karl-Erik Frandsen, The Last Plague in the Baltic Region 1709-1713 (Copenhagen, 2010), 26. On the plague in Danzig see also E. Kizik (ed.), Dżuma, ospa, cholera. W trzechsetną rocznicę wielkiej epidemii w Gdańsku i na ziemiach Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1708–1711. Materiały z konferencji naukowej zorganizowanej przez Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Gdańska i Instytut Historii PAN w dniach 21–22 maja 2009 (Gdańsk 2011) and the contemporary account Johann Christoph Gottwald, Memoriale Loimicum, Oder Kurtze Verzeichnüß, Dessen, LoimicumWas in der Königl. Stadt Dantzig, bey der daselbst Anno 1709. hefftig graßirenden Seuche der Pestilentz, sich zugetragen, Nach einer Dreyfachen Nachricht, aus eigener Erfahrung auffgesetzet und beschrieben (1710).
3 H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origjn and History from 1569-1919, trans. Victor G. Doerksen, ed. and annotated Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen (Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, 2007; co-published with Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario).
5 On sleep, dreams and visions see Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT, 2016); Janine Riviere, Dreams in Early Modern England (London and New York, 2017).
6 On dealing with the discernment of spirits see Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New York, 2007); Laura Sangha, ‘ “Incorporeal Substances”: Discerning Angels in Later Seventeenth-Century England’, in Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (eds), Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period (Leiden, 2012), 255–277; Elizabeth Tingle, ‘Ghost Stories: Noël de Taillepied’s Pischologie ou apparition des esprits (1587) and the Rehabilitation of Purgatory in Late Sixteenth-Century France’, in Elizabeth Tingle and Jonathan Willis (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe (Abingdon and New York, 2015), 175– 196
7 On grief and suffering in Protestant theology see Ronald K. Rittgers, ‘Grief and Consolation in Early Modern Lutheran Devotion: The Case of Johannes Christoph Oelhafen’s Pious Meditations on the Most Sorrowful Bereavement (1619)’, Church History 81.3 (2012), 601-630.
The following is the third article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos
The 1960s and 70s were a turbulent time within the Mennonite settlements in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua, Mexico. Communities split over the introduction of electricity and running water, which were previously forbidden. Excommunications for putting rubber tires on tractors and buying cars and trucks were so common that colony land directly adjacent to the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc was settled by excommunicated people and became known the Quinta Lupita colony. For poor, landless young men in the colonies, referred to by some as “Mennonite cowboys,” semi-truck driving became a path to economic and social freedom. With newfound access to vehicles, families began joining migrant farm labor circuits in the U.S. and Canada, earning more in a few months than they could earn in years in Mexico.1 Suddenly, the Campos weren’t so isolated from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and the rest of the world. Commerce between Mestizos and Mennonites exploded since it was no longer limited to the distance that could be covered by a horse and buggy.
However, this increased mobility did not typically extend to women in the colonies, particularly young, single women like Aganetha Loewen Wiens. Aganetha grew up in a traditional Old Colony community during these tumultuous years and feeling the buzz of this movement around her, she was determined to pursue and education beyond the sixth grade. Although she didn’t speak Spanish and was the only Mennonite in the school, she insisted on attending the only accredited secondary school in the area at the time, in the village of Alvaro Obregon. She told the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project (REBB) in 20182:
I did it practically without speaking any Spanish and all of school was in Spanish. I struggled a lot in those first months to understand the teachers. Sometimes, I would find out later that they assigned homework. But I had some good classmates who saw I was struggling who came and asked me if I understood what homework we were supposed to do. It was an extraordinary experience.
Aganetha always pushed against the boundaries of what was acceptable in her community, moving to Chihuahua to attend college after completing secondary school, years before anyone else, male or female, would do so.
I had the idea of going to Chihuahua to study nursing, I had a lot of obstacles, especially from my family, there was no economic support, nothing. Nobody supported me when I had this idea, but there was a teacher from the Campo 101 school who gave me economic support and support in every sense of the word to be able to study there. During those years, I learned that, yes, change is possible, yes, that it’s possible to live differently. Afterwards, I told myself: Yes you can, if you want to, anything is possible.
She became a nurse and married a Mestizo man, a doctor, whom she met at the hospital during her year of assigned government social service and had three children. She also trained to be midwife during an era in Mexico, the second half of the twentieth century, which historian Ana Maria Carillo referred to as “the death of the midwife.”3 Aganetha described the dynamics with the traditional Ojo de la Yegua Colony where she and her husband moved and opened a clinic in the 1980s:
It was a very traditional community. When we started there, there was no highway, no electricity. . . . In the practice we had a room where we attended births. The women were very isolated. I had been rejected because I left the community. But they came for medical attention. That was not rejected. They accepted that. There was no problem. Lots and lots of people came. Those who didn’t know Spanish struggled a lot to go to the doctor. For this reason, they sought us out. We had the advantage that we could communicate with them in their language.
When Aganetha began attending births in the Mennonite Campos in the 1980s, it was nearly impossible for Mennonite women, traditional or non-traditional, to have any formal medical training and those who would have wanted to obtain it would have had to go to Chihuahua to receive it. During this period from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the gap between the Spanish speaking medical establishment and Low-German speaking Mennonite women remained wide, and at the same time, many birthing and post-partum practices traditionally practiced in Mennonite culture, such as home births and breast feeding, were becoming less and less common in many colonies for a variety reasons internal and external (following contemporary national and global trends), leaving many Low-German speaking Mennonite women, particularly in the most conservative communities, without adequate access to care from either the Spanish speaking medical establishment or from traditionally trained Mennonite midwives.4
Aganetha’s training as a nurse and cultural and linguistic background gave her the ability to provide maternal care to women who would not have otherwise had access. Running the clinic with her husband, a medical doctor, provided her with a framework for acceptance within the professionalized, male dominated medical establishment and gave her credibility in an environment that was increasingly skeptical of midwifery. Her training as a nurse; however, provided her with skills and knowledge unavailable to previous generations of traditional midwives and was a pre-cursor to later movements in maternal health care that would incorporate modern medicine with the care, skill, support and advocacy provided by midwives to give women a voice known in their pre and post-natal care and in the birthing process. In Mexico, this movement toward a more woman-centered standard of maternal became known as the fight for “partos humanizados,” or “humanized births.”5 During the time Aganetha and her husband ran their clinic in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, Mennonite women wanted hospital births, but did not have access to them in their remote location. Aganetha was able to serve as a bridge the medicalization and professionalization of maternal care and midwifery by providing Mennonite women with the culturally appropriate medical care in their language that they were unable to get anywhere else.
After her husband’s death in 1998, Aganetha continued running the clinic and pharmacy and attending births on her own. Though she eventually closed her clinic and pharmacy in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, she relocated to the Swift Current Colony where she continues to practice to this day. During her interview with the REBB Oral History Project, Aganetha excused herself from the interview to attend to a patient who honked her horn in the driveway to alert Aganetha that she had arrived. After about fifteen minutes, Aganetha returned and poured more coffee before sitting down to finish the interview. Reflecting on how her work as a nurse and midwife has changed over the course of nearly forty years, she smiled and said:
I still work here. I still do what I love and use what I learned. I have a pharmacy and I love working there and seeing people in the practice. Recently, there has been one birth after another. Children are still born here, and I love attending the births. I can’t really say anything has changed about the work itself because I do it the way I’ve always done it. In the thirty-five to forty years since I went to school, things have improved a lot. The mentality is more open. It’s not so closed anymore.
Though Aganetha and became a nurse and midwife against the wishes of her family and community, the transition between the tumultuous times of change and reform in the Mennonite colonies and today, where there is a greater diversity of religious expression, more educational opportunities, and increased access to healthcare, was very difficult, and it would not have been possible without the work of women who left the traditional church (through excommunication or by their own choice, like Aganetha) who later returned to their communities to serve and support the women who still lived there.
Part four of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal health in the Mennonite Campos of the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua will explore the dynamics concerning the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico, particularly in rural areas, as well as, the role of Katia LeMone, a Certified Nurse Midwife from New Mexico, whose close relationship with her Mennonite clientele laid the groundwork for the creation of Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School that serves clients and midwifery students from Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri backgrounds in the heart of the Campos Menonitas.
1. David Klassen, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
2. Aganetha Loewen Wiens, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
3. Carrillo, Ana Maria, “Naciemiento y muerte de una profesión. Las parteras tituladas en México” (“Birth and Death of a Profession. Certified Midwives in Mexico.” DYNAMIS, 167-190, 1999.
4. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
5. Alejandra Saena Izunza, “Parir en México es un acto de resistencia” (“Giving Birth in Mexico is an Act of Resistance”), Washington Post, Jan. 13th, 2020.
2020 has been a remarkable year. It’s the kind of year that historians will write bestselling books about, as they have for the 1918 influenza pandemic or the global tumult of 1968. The list of events is long and includes pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong; disastrous fires in Australia; impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump; the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, and continued aftermath; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the global protests against racism and police brutality that followed; the stock market crash; the soaring profits of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations; more wildfires – unprecedented in scale and intensity due to human-induced climate change – on the west coast of the United States and in South America; a divisive U.S. presidential election campaign; and potentially catastrophic hurricanes on the U.S. Gulf Coast, with more storms on the way.
The list continues to grow. With no end of the pandemic in sight (at least in the United States), the northern hemisphere is bracing for a wintertime resurgence of the virus and long months of separation from friends, family, and community. The U.S. presidential election in November promises to be contentious. While President Trump seeks to rally his base, detractors continue to decry his racism, his climate change denial, his efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, and his authoritarian tendencies. Some, including former President Barack Obama, have even warned that the future of democracy in the United States is at stake.1 The pandemic has exposed multiple fault lines – including systemic racism, gender inequality, and massive economic disparities – that continue to shape societies around the world, prompting some to imagine what a post-pandemic world could (or should) look like.
Indeed, future historians will have much to ponder about 2020 and its significance as a watershed moment in history. They will also have an abundance of sources to consider. The internet continues to democratize access to information and provides a ready platform for any person or organization with an agenda to promote. The proliferation of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and “fake news” will further complicate efforts to understand this moment in history. Despite these challenges, on the surface it seems that access to sources of information will not be a problem.
Yet, as historian Jill Lepore reminds us, historical sources do not preserve themselves, even if they are posted on the internet. Historians of the future will continue to rely on librarians and archivists to preserve and provide access to the primary sources they need for their research. In recognition of this fact, cultural institutions around the world have launched collecting initiatives to make sure that the historical record of the unprecedented events of 2020 is not lost to future generations. To track these documentation efforts, the International Federation for Public History and the Made By Us consortium created a map, which now includes information about almost five hundred different collecting projects. In the U.S. and Canada, colleges and universities, local public libraries, state historical societies, and federal governments are all getting involved.
At the beginning of August, sixteen Anabaptist and Mennonite archives and history organizations in the United States and Canada joined these efforts by launching Anabaptist History Today (AHT). AHT is a collaborative storytelling project that seeks to document the events of 2020 “through an Anabaptist lens.” We created a website where people in the Anabaptist and Mennonite community can submit stories and digital files (photos, audio recordings, videos, screenshots, and more) to illustrate how the events of 2020 have impacted their lives, their congregations, and their communities. After volunteer curators have a chance to review submissions, we post them to the public on an exhibit page.
People and organizations across the Anabaptist community have responded to the crises of 2020 with creativity, compassion, solidarity, and generosity. But the responses have not been uniform. The interconnected events of the last several months have also magnified rifts and strained ties that bind the faith community together. Our job as historians, librarians, and archivists is to document this moment in history in all its diversity and complexity.
Anabaptist History Today has the potential to play a critical role in this regard. The project is open to anyone who identifies as Anabaptist, regardless of political or religious convictions or denominational affiliation. The website also provides an important tool for capturing personal stories and experiences that might not otherwise be recorded or preserved. Due to web-archiving tools like Archive-It, the response of the institutional church (including denominational agencies, conferences, and other partners) will already be well documented. These accounts are important, but we want to create a fuller picture by recording stories and reflections that are happening behind the scenes, ones that capture the daily, lived experiences of people in the Anabaptist and Mennonite community.
As a crowdsourced project, AHT relies on the interest and engagement of the public. We’ve already received some good contributions, including a description of a typical Sunday morning during the pandemic in Harrisonburg, Virginia; an eighty year old Mennonite’s reflection on Black Lives Matter; and a podcast documenting experiences in the Portland Mennonite Church community. At the same time, we realize that these are difficult times. Amid ongoing stresses and challenges and the pressing needs in our communities, documenting our lives for posterity may not be a priority for many people.
I encourage people to view AHT as an opportunity to take an active role in a project that will enrich understanding of the Anabaptist community during a defining moment in history. AHT provides a chance to take a step back and reflect on how your life has changed over the course of this year. You do not have to be a trained theologian to get involved. We are not looking for polished treatises. What we want are individual snapshots that reflect your personal experiences in your local congregation or community. Scroll back through your camera roll and find that photo you took at your church’s physically distanced worship service. Type out that poem or reflection you wrote in your journal in April. Take a screenshot of the Facebook post you wrote after attending a Black Lives Matter protest in June. Record a short interview with your pastor about their experiences. Then take five minutes and submit your story on the Anabaptist History Today website.2
People around the world are coping with new realities in 2020 and hundreds of cultural institutions are working to document the human stories that are emerging. How have you acted on your faith during this time of crisis? How has your local community responded? What has been unique about your experiences? Anabaptists of the future will want to know.
The following is the second article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos
In the years following the Mexican Revolution, a Mennonite midwife, Susanna Shellenberg, whose life and work was referenced in Part 1 of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal care, was ordered by the government to stop attending births and providing the local communities of Cuauhtémoc, Cusihuiriachi, and Santa Rita with herbal remedies. What happened next was the result of a perfect storm of contemporary socio-political and religious dynamics unfolding at the national level, as well as changing sentiments about midwifery and traditional healing that coincided with the development of Mexico’s national public health system and its focus on modernizing medical treatment in rural areas.
The years following the Mennonites’ arrival in San Antonio de los Arenales (modern-day Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico,) from Canada in 1922, were marked by an intense period of national political and social reorganization following the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa’s soldiers in the north and Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers in south and central Mexico, returned home to conditions that were similar under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and continued pushing for increased land reform through armed revolt and political action. Some of these conflicts played out in and near the Mennonite Campos, detailed by local historian José Luis Domínguez in his book The Other History of the Mennonites (La Otra Historia de los Menonitas), and led to the creation of the Two Hundred Colony (Colonia Dos Cientos), so called for the 200 pesos paid for in exchange for giving up their claim to land now occupied by Mennonites.1
President Álvaro Obregón, who during his term (1920-1924) granted privilegium to the Mennonites to settle in the state of Chihuahua, enforced land reform provisions that had been laid out in the 1917 Constitution, but had not implemented in practice into the Mexican government’s infrastructure. He was viewed by many as a force that quelled unrest and that navigated the unification and modernization of Mexico, while negotiating increased commercial relations with the United States. However, in years following his term (1926-1929), an armed conflict, known as the Cristero War (La Cristiada), raged in the western and central regions of the country (excluding border states like Chihuahua) between President Plutarco Calles’ anti-clerical forces that advocated for a secular state and the enforcement of punitive “Calles Laws” and the Cristeros who supported the Catholic Church. In 1928, Álvaro Obregón succeeded Calles and was re-elected president, but was assassinated soon after because of his support of Calles and his anti-Catholic policies. A peace between Calles’ forces and the Cristeros and was brokered in 1929 through a complex web of international negotiations, which included a U.S. ambassador, the Knights of Columbus, and representatives from the Vatican.2
The 1930s ushered in the beginning of a period of relative stability and the election of Lázaro Cardenas in 1934 marked an increased push to modernize Mexico, with special attention to its rural areas. This period of reorganization, while tumultuous, shaped the economic, socio-political and religious dynamics in Mexico to this day and gave birth to some of modern Mexico’s institutions such as the Ejidal public land system and the national public health system3 and serves as the historical backdrop to the following oral history testimony concerning a confrontation between a Mennonite midwife, Susana Shellenburg, two local Cuauhtémoc doctors, and the Mexican government.
Coinciding with the drafting of the 1917 Constitution, which focused on land reform, the roles and responsibilities of the secular, centralized federal government, and the protection, fundamental human rights of Mexican citizens, which included healthcare, Mexico also created the first iteration of its national department of public health (Departamento de Salubridad Pública) that focused on the provision of potable water, the prevention and treatment of contagious diseases, and the launching of vaccination campaigns. By 1931, the State Health Services (Servicio de Sanidad de los Estados) was established to build health infrastructure and access in rural areas and was the precursor to the national public health system that Mexico has today that was created in a variety of iterations beginning in the 1940s.4
The following oral history, which was shared with Casa Geburt Midwifery Training School by Susanna Thiessen, Susana Shellenberg’s great-grandaughter, occurs in the midst of these sweeping national public health campaigns and reforms.
“My great-grandmother [Susana Shellenberg] was born in Canada in 1905 and was the wife of Heinrich Shellenberg. Susana learned how to attend births and how to heal the sick with herbs from two traditional Jewish women in Canada.
In 1927, Heinrich, Susana, and their two daughters came to Mexico. At that time, there were no doctors in the Cuauhtémoc area. She immediately began to care for the sick. After some years in Mexico, she also began to provide midwifery services. She served in the Campos Menonitas, as well as in the Mexican ranches. Sometimes, people came for her in the middle of the night in a horse and buggy to take her to attend births or to heal the sick.
Many times, the people were so poor, they couldn’t even offer her a coffee. She attended many births where she didn’t receive payment of any kind. She also took along baby clothes and blankets because she knew that the people didn’t have anything to keep their babies warm.
Some years later, doctors began to arrive in Cuauhtémoc, including Dr. Cazale and Dr. Barba Cornejo. The city had grown with the passing of time. There were people who were jealous of the type of help that Susana was providing and made a legal complaint against her with the government. She had to stop helping people for a time until some Mexican people that she had helped before said, “This woman saved our families’ lives and we want her to continue helping people.” The Mexicans fought for Susana until after some time, the government gave her a permit to be able to continue working freely.”
Despite tensions surrounding land disputes between Mestizos and Mennonites during this period as well as accusations that the government was giving preference to the Mennonites as a religious group in a state that purported secular governance, Susanna’s rapport with the local Mestizo community was so strong that they came to her defense and demanded that she be allowed to continue to practice. Additionally, the local community’s support of Susanna reveals resistance of many within the rural population to embrace the modern medical infrastructure they felt was being imposed on them by outsiders from Mexico City. To avoid additional unrest in an already delicate socio-political, economic and religious environment, the government conceded to the will of local Cuauhtémoc residents and Susanna was allowed to continue to practice.
Though the Mestizo residents advocated on behalf of Susanna Shellenberg and she was given a special permit by the government to continue practicing, Susana’s story is representative of a common theme occurring at that time in Mexico. As medicine became professionalized in Mexico, midwifery was seen as a threat to medical practice the woman-centered model of maternal provided by midwives was replaced by an almost exclusively male, professional medical establishment, which in keeping with commonly held views of the time, viewed pregnancy and birth through the lens of pathology and did not provide women a voice or position within the new modern medical system.
Doctor María Graciela Freyermuth Enciso, a researcher for Mexico’s National Social Development Policy Institute (CONEVAL) and a social anthropologist who focuses on maternal health and midwifery while simultaneously chronicling the history of midwifery in Mexico writes, “Midwifery almost went extinct in Mexico….midwives were criticized by doctors and didn’t have a voice in that transition.”5 Though Susanna continued to work as a midwife and herbal healer for the remainder of her life, she was the exception not the rule.
Susanna Thiessen describes her great-grandmother’s work after she was given permission by the government to begin practicing again saying,
“My great-grandmother continued her work out of her home where she had a small clinic and saw patients freely. Sometimes, people had kidney problems and she attended to them for weeks in her home. At first, she ordered the products for her natural remedies from Germany, but there was a problem with the package delivery and she began to place orders with Mexican companies. She needed these herbs to care for sick patients. Sometimes, she sold a little of the medicine, but very cheaply, because many times people didn’t have money.
She had two books with medicinal recipes and she made many of the remedies herself. She worked into her old age. She was eighty years old when she attended her last birth and it was the birth of her great-grandson, her granddaughter’s son. This child’s mother said that this child who was born with his great-grandmother was stronger than the other children who were born in hospitals with doctors.”
By the 1980s, when Susanna Shellenberg died, births in the Tres Culturas Region with the exception of the most rural and marginalized women from Mestizo, Mennonite, and Rarámuri backgrounds, were almost exclusively attended in hospitals. The vast majority of these births were performed by C-section, which matched trends nationally. Though the national health system drastically improved health outcomes in many areas, particularly in the prevention and treatment of infectious disease, the maternal and infant mortality rates, particularly in rural areas of Mexico, remain so high that World Health Organization, federal, state and local governments, and health care workers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are continuing to seek the development of community health models and culturally responsive maternal care that will improve mortality outcomes.6
Part 3 of this series will explore the beginnings of the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico generally and the Mennonite Campos specifically, exploring the origins nurse midwives who beginning in the 1970s, began practicing integrating the knowledge and community trust held by traditional midwives with modern medical training, giving particular attention to the experiences of a nurse and midwife who is still practicing in the Campos today, Aganetha Loewen Wiens.
[Oral History translated from German to Spanish by Sara Banman, a graduate of Casa Geburt’s midwifery training school, also currently working in the Campos Menonitas.]
[Oral History translated from Spanish to English by Abigail Carl-Klassen.]
We are living through very challenging times. 2020 thus far has been marked by uncertainty, upheaval, and loss of many kinds. For the first time in a long time, we are facing a collective hardship that requires us to make personal sacrifices for the good of society. Many have turned to history, studying events like the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression in an attempt to glean wisdom and find a path forward for our nation. At Eastern Mennonite University we can also look to the responses to these events in our own history—the Spanish Flu arrived just a year after the school opened its doors and a decade later the Great Depression tested the school just as it began to find its footing. I wrote earlier about the Spanish Flu at EMS, and today want to focus on the Great Depression. In each of these stories, we find examples of resilience that can inform our response today and give us hope for the times ahead.
October 29, 1929, better known as Black Tuesday, ushered in financial downfall all over the world and set the stage for the Great Depression. The still-young Eastern Mennonite School was not exempt from its impact. EMC historian Hubert Pellman writes in his book Eastern Mennonite College, 1917-1967 that “in the period 1929-34 the expansion of curriculums to qualify for and hold state accreditment and the decrease of enrollment and other straitening financial conditions caused by the depression made the problem of finances particularly acute.”1 But with community sacrifice, frugality, and ingenuity the school was able to survive and thrive.
Even before the Great Depression hit, faculty and staff were no strangers to low compensation, being paid only one half of what other faculty in the area made. But this financial problem would require even greater sacrifice—“on Sept. 11, 1931, the faculty heard that the school lacked the money to pay its employees.”2 The dedicated faculty and staff went above and beyond to make up the difference, offering to give up another ten percent from their already meager salaries. A select few were pressed into giving up even more–the three full-time women on the faculty, Sadie Hartzler, Ruth Hostetter, and Dorothy Kemrer, were chosen by the faculty to receive a two-thirds salary, because they were unmarried and it was determined that “those who are married should be the last to suffer.”3 (Unsurprisingly, all the married faculty were men.) Ruth Stolzfus Stauffer Hostetter said that the women, “knew through those early years that single women didn’t get the pay of married men. We recognized that it was happening. But we seldom talked about it.”4 Their reduced pay continued from 1931 until 1934, when their full salaries were reinstated.5 Hostetter claimed that there was “comfort in numbers” since so many other Mennonite institutions and their workers were feeling the same crunch, and that she just “was thankful for an opportunity to serve in a professional setting.”6
Eastern Mennonite School Faculty, 1930 Source: EMS Journal, 1930
The executive committee of EMS also thought of creative ways to reduce the number of faculty and staff without firing anyone. In addition to those working for severely reduced wages, some took on lighter course loads and others were encouraged to return to school to continue their education, with the hope that they could return once things improved.7
The dedicated faculty and staff placed the needs of the school above their own to realize the school’s mission of distinctly Mennonite education and their sacrifices did not go unnoticed or without thanks. In the August 1931 Eastern Mennonite School Bulletin, Dean C.K. Lehman wrote a very affirmative report about the faculty of EMS, praising them for “laboring under handicaps,”8 but continuing to put forth their best work as educators. H.D. Weaver, business manager at the time, also gratefully noted the ten percent reduction in salary that the faculty took.9
Cost-cutting around campus was also necessary, and this was championed by President A.D. Wenger, who “taught and exemplified frugality.”10 Even before the Great Depression, Wenger was intent on penny pinching and keeping EMS to a strict budget. Pellman reports that “students paid two cents a term for every watt of light above forty,”11 that they were expected to study together in a study hall instead of their dorm rooms to conserve electricity, and that modern conveniences like telephones and adding machines were not brought to EMS until almost a decade after the school’s inception. In the years before the depression this budget-saving tactic was effective, with quite a few years under Wenger’s administration ending in the black.12
Wenger’s frugality was essential during the Great Depression and his ingenuity was just as integral to the school’s continuing survival. To help students afford tuition and make it feasible for them to continue attending EMS, he started the Sharon Manufacturing Company along with Ernest G. Gehman and E.C. Shank. They manufactured cast aluminum toys and operated out of a farm building on EMS’s campus. The company was the “only maker of cast aluminum toys in the United States,”13 and was quite successful in its heyday, selling to large department stores like Woolworths and Kresge’s. But the greater success that emerged from this business risk was the employment of up to forty EMS students which allowed many to afford tuition and continue attending. Ultimately, however, the company met its end in 1934 when it was shut down by the U.S. Government.14
Toy cars produced by Sharon Manufacturing Company
Notice for Sharon Manufacturing Company in an EMS Bulletin Source: EMS Bulletin Vol. XII No. 8 Aug. 1933
As evidenced by the size and scope of EMU today, Eastern Mennonite School survived the Great Depression and thrived in spite of it. Its financial setbacks were great at times, but it had loyal faculty, students, and constituents who were willing to work together in order to see the mission of EMS realized. The administration succeeded through their frugality, innovation, and shrewd decision-making that required sacrifice but respected the dignity of everyone in the community. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of our times, we can find inspiration and hope in the ingenuity, tenacity, and resilience of those who came before us.
Long-lost datebooks of Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler from 1943 through the end of the Second World War have recently resurfaced and been published. Upon opening the new volume, which clocks in at more than a thousand pages, I was startled to see that the first entry—for January 1, 1943—describes meetings between Himmler and the leading representative of Mennonites in the Third Reich, Benjamin Unruh. Historians had previously known about this encounter from letters that Unruh penned for fellow Mennonite churchmen following a three-day summit with Himmler at the commander’s SS headquarters in East Prussia. Himmler’s date calendar confirms Unruh’s reports in striking detail, offering new insight on Mennonites’ relationship with the Nazi state.1
The newly published Himmler diaries show clearly why the powerful head of the SS wanted to meet with a delegate from the Third Reich’s Mennonite denomination during the darkest days of the Nazi assault on Jews and other perceived enemies, when Hitler’s territorial control of much of Europe was at its height. Unruh had been seeking such a meeting with a high-level Nazi like Himmler for years—unsuccessfully. Yet in the autumn of 1942, it had been Himmler who had reached out to Unruh to invite him for a tête-à-tête.2 “Guess whose greetings I bring for you from Russia?” Himmler asked Unruh when the two men broke bread. “For example, from Frau Berg,” Himmler continued, naming an elderly midwife he had recently met in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.3
Hearing Himmler utter the name Helene Berg must have been a remarkable moment for Unruh. The eighty-four-year-old midwife had long been a pillar of the Molotschna Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine, where Unruh himself had been a prominent leader prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Unruh, an ardent anti-communist, had been exiled to Germany after the formation of the Soviet Union. The midwife Berg, meanwhile, had remained behind with another 100,000 Mennonites in the fledgling USSR. Unruh had watched with horror from his adopted homeland of Germany as coreligionists in once thriving Ukrainian colonies like Molotschna faced hardship upon hardship: famine, collectivization, deportations, and executions.
Unruh’s separation from Berg and the other Mennonites in Ukraine had lasted for two decades. During this time, Unruh worked tirelessly to publicize their plight in the Soviet Union, which—especially after the rise of Joseph Stalin—targeted religious groups, once wealthy people, and communities of German heritage with brutal violence. Unruh assisted thousands of Mennonites to leave the Soviet Union, and he helped organize food and clothing drives for those who stayed. Sharing a conspiracy theory with the nascent Nazi movement about communism being a Jewish plot, Unruh recognized a potential partner. In 1933, he welcomed Hitler’s rise to political power.
Unruh made his first financial donation to the SS in 1933, but another decade would pass before he met in person with the notorious head of this violent organization.4 During this period, Unruh chose to remain stateless, never applying for German citizenship, which he felt might harm his ability to advocate for downtrodden Soviet Mennonites on the international stage.5 He became the official representative in Germany of several major denominational aid organization abroad. His dealings with high government officials also rendered him an invaluable asset for Germany’s own Mennonite churches, which he increasingly came to represent in the eyes of Third Reich bureaucrats. Yet not until the Second World War did Unruh achieve the full influence he sought.
Germany’s Mennonite leadership had begun trying to win an audience with Himmler or another top Nazi official in 1937. This was arguably the single most dangerous year for Mennonites’ own legal position as a tolerated denomination operating openly in the Third Reich. In 1937, several threats to Mennonite independence arose simultaneously. In that year, Nazi authorities expelled a small group of Anabaptists known as the Bruderhof. Party censors grew suspicious of Mennonite ties to coreligionists abroad, especially those who espoused pacifism (a theological position that Germany’s Mennonites abandoned). Most concerning to Unruh and his colleagues, two separate Nazi Party chapters had questioned whether members could keep Mennonite church affiliation.6
Keen to demonstrate the compatibility of Mennonitism and Nazism, Unruh and his church allies pursued every avenue. Unruh pressed Mennonites’ case as part of two delegations to the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.7 Such efforts contributed to a ruling that “Mennonites can also be members of the NSDAP.”8 Yet issues persistently arose, especially opposition in various Reich services to exempt Mennonites from swearing oaths. Church leaders mulled a direct appeal to the Führer.9 Those with personal connections to his deputies, including Rudolf Hess and Himmler, approached these men by letter. But they met limited success. In 1938, the SS even temporarily banned Mennonites, news that reportedly “landed like a bomb” among one ministerial group.10
What changed Himmler’s mind? The SS chief had personally rejected an appeal from Mennonite leaders to allow the marriage of a preacher’s daughter with an SS man to go forward. Himmler insisted on both unusual blood purity and intense ideological commitment from female as well as male members of his SS “clan community.” In 1938, he clearly felt that “The foundations of the Mennonite sect are in no way reconcilable with the worldview of the Schutzstaffel.”11 Yet four years later, he had amended his position. The outbreak of World War II and Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe brought the large colonies in Ukraine to Himmler’s attention. “I have been in the Ukraine and seen the people there,” he reportedly told Unruh. “Your Mennonites are the best.”12
Himmler had once feared that Mennonites could contaminate the SS gene pool. His embrace of Mennonites in Ukraine during the Second World War, conversely, stemmed from a new belief that members’ blood could prove valuable for the new Aryan order that the Nazis hoped to build in Eastern Europe. When German armies invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, they discovered hundreds of thousands of German speakers living in Ukraine, including some 35,000 Mennonites. Himmler and other leading Nazis saw these local people as a “master race” that had previously been repressed by Jews and communists under Soviet rule. Himmler dispatched death squads to Ukraine to murder the region’s 1.2 million Jews, including those in Mennonite areas.13
The Nazi conquest of Ukraine cheered Unruh and other Mennonite leaders in Germany, who had long prayed for the demise of Bolshevik tyranny over coreligionists to the east. Unruh dispatched numerous letters to his old friends in Ukraine, asking for news. Among those he reached was the midwife in Molotschna, Helene Berg. This elderly woman told Unruh of her great joy in being liberated from Soviet rule. Berg’s letters described the horrors of communism as well as the new privileges that German speakers like herself received through racial warfare. Like many residents of Molotschna—which the Nazis renamed Halbstadt (a more German name, to their ears)—Berg studied Nazi propaganda and developed good relations with agents of occupation and genocide.14
From late 1941 through mid-1942, Himmler enthusiastically read the reports of his functionaries as they murdered Jews and distributed aid to German speakers like Helene Berg. The Holocaust of bullets in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory soon peaked, and the weight of the genocide shifted to centralized extermination camps in occupied Poland.15 The geographical boundaries of the Nazi empire were nearly at their zenith—and the regime’s wartime administrative machinery for Ukraine expanded apace. By September 1942, the Halbstadt colony where Berg lived had come under the territorial jurisdiction of the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Day to day activities in the settlement, however, remained under SS rule. Himmler himself would soon make an appearance.
Himmler met Berg during a six-day tour of southeastern Ukraine that spanned late October and early November 1942. The SS chief had recently held meetings with Hitler about Germanizing Ukraine, including discussions about Halbstadt and other Mennonite colonies. Himmler had given the task of envisioning Eastern Europe’s racial reorganization to Konrad Meyer, a scholar and SS officer. Meyer drew up a secret master document, General Plan East, according to which populations from Halbstadt and elsewhere would form the kernel for a new Nazi province called Gotengau. Himmler’s meetings with Hitler yielded a bevy of new ordinances for Ukraine. These, and his trip to Halbstadt, constituted the first practical steps toward the hypothetical Gotengau.16
Himmler arrived in Halbstadt at 4:30pm on October 31, 1942. He had just come from Crimea and was traveling with a retinue of high-ranking SS men. The colony’s own SS administrators had planned a full schedule. During an “Ethnic German Evening,” local youth performed a pro-Nazi pageant. Himmler then delivered a speech to village mayors, proclaiming that they would receive German citizenship and material restitution for their hardships under communism. The next morning, Himmler spoke to a general assembly (with marches from Nazi youth groups and paramilitary formations), and he visited workshops and an educational institution.17 The SS chief reportedly inducted hundreds of Mennonites into the Waffen-SS and bestowed several honors.
The midwife Helene Berg appears to have numbered among Himmler’s honorees, likely on the morning of November 1. Subsequent correspondence shows that Himmler granted her a monthly pension from SS coffers of 100 Reichsmarks.18 He chose to celebrate Berg “as a midwife, who brought over 8,000 Ethnic German children into this restless world.”19 In her eighty-four years, Berg had certainly not performed thousands of births with any express intention of expanding the biological stock of an Aryan master race. But for Himmler, this had been the result—as essential a service to Nazism as could have been rendered by any male soldier. Berg’s example justified to Himmler’s thinking the future subjugation or removal of all Halbstadt’s remaining non-Germans.
Himmler’s meeting with Benjamin Unruh two months later concerned plans to import Germans from abroad and to murder or expel other peoples so that much of southeastern Ukraine would be a pure German territory along the lines of the Halbstadt colony. Over three days at the Hochwald bunker in East Prussia from December 31, 1942 to January 2, 1943, Himmler dined or otherwise conferred with Unruh on six occasions. His diary shows that others present during the encounters included leading SS figures responsible for perpetrating genocide in Ukraine, for forging Ethnic German policy, and for long-range racial engineering.20 Unruh subsequently relayed Himmler’s desire to acquire more German Mennonite settlers from the Americas. “The highest importance was placed on the resettlement,” he reported, “which should be executed very generously.”21
Unruh welcomed Himmler’s vision of bringing thousands of Mennonites from the Americas for colonization in Eastern Europe, alongside other German-speakers from locations as far-flung as Palestine and Italy. Unruh had already helped arrange modest migrations of his coreligionists to the Third Reich from Brazil, Canada, and Paraguay. Sponsoring much larger waves after the war would serve Nazi objectives and Unruh’s own. When speaking with Himmler, Unruh leveraged such prospects against more immediate religious concerns. Himmler agreed to allow ordination of Mennonite elders in Ukraine, and to consider exemptions from swearing oaths. Meanwhile, he redoubled efforts to ensure the region would be “totally Germanized, that is, totally settled.”22
Nazi losses on the eastern front thwarted Himmler’s dreams for a racial Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine. The SS began evacuating German settlers in 1943. As the Red Army retook Ukraine by 1944, Himmler simply shifted colonization schemes west.23 Most Mennonite refugees found new lodging in Nazi-occupied Poland. Benjamin Unruh, now receiving a monthly salary from the SS, oversaw their contacts with high Nazi offices.24 Among his concerns was finding a suitable home for Helene Berg, who had traveled by wagon from Halbstadt to Poland and was living in a transit camp. Unruh’s SS handlers were well aware of Himmler’s personal interest in this midwife, and they helped arrange her transfer to a Mennonite home for the elderly in the city of Marienburg.25
In the end, whether Berg was grateful for Himmler’s attentions is difficult to know. As the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, surely the comforting words shared by Unruh rang hollow: “Every birth is so difficult and the birth of a new Europe especially.”26 With the Red Army bearing down on Marienburg, most of the city’s able-bodied Germans fled. They abandoned Berg and the other residents of the home for the elderly. Over the next eighteen months, Berg witnessed atrocities committed against the few Germans who remained, including the rape of her caretaker. By the time Poland expelled her to western Germany in mid-1946, Berg had little incentive to talk about Himmler, dead for over a year.27 Yet she appreciated renewed contact with “dear, good Beny.”28
The history of Himmler’s Mennonite midwife reflects a troubling intersection of denominational activism and Nazi genocide during the Second World War. For Himmler, Helene Berg and the thousands of ostensibly Aryan children she had helped deliver constituted both past and future of a violently cleansed utopia, free from Jews and other so-called racial aliens. Mennonite leaders like Benjamin Unruh participated in this project, alternately sharing Himmler’s vision or using promises of future cooperation to attain their own religious goals. And what about Berg herself? The archival documents by and about her suggest intriguing new directions for research about Mennonites, reproduction, and the elderly under fascism—topics still waiting to be explored.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for providing sources and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.
1. The papers, discovered in a Moscow archive in 2013, have been published as Matthias Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors: Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1943-1945 (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2020). Another section, covering the years 1941-1942, had already been found in 1990 and appeared in print as Heinrich Himmler, Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1999). On Unruh’s meeting with Himmler, see Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 147-156.
2. This invitation came on the recommendation of an SS officer and longtime scholar of Mennonites named Karl Götz, whom Himmler planned to install as the head of the Overseas Department of the Ethnic German Office after the war. Götz, who had known Unruh since 1934, apparently tried to establish a meeting between Unruh and Himmler for November 1941. Götz seems to have written to Unruh again in September 1942—during the period when Himmler and Hitler were conferring with advisors about Ethnic German policy in Ukraine. At this time, Unruh provided documents about Mennonites to Götz, who passed this information to Himmler. Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Hein, July 25, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany, hereafter MFS. Himmler’s staff then reached out to Götz on October 2, 1942, asking for Unruh’s address. Geheime Staatspolizei to Karl Götz, October 2, 1942, T-81/143, archived in Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (hereafter NARA). On Götz, see Benjamin Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Third Reich Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75, no. 2 (2018): 173-206.
3. “‘Notizen”’ über die Unterredung des Reichsführers SS Heinrich Himmler mit dem Verteter der Rußlanddeutchen in der Ukraine, Südrußland, Professor Dr. Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, Karlsruhe/Baden, an Sylvester 1943 im Hauptquartier Himmlers, in dessen Wohnwagen,” n.d., Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.
4. Unruh’s 1933 financial contribution made him a Supporting Member of the SS with the membership number 168,232. Benjamin Unruh to Walther Kolrep, January 30, 1940, Benjamin H. Unruh Papers, box 2, folder: Misc. Unruh Papers, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
5. Until Unruh received his invitation to visit Himmler in November 1942, he had been trying unsuccessfully through civilian channels to receive permission to travel to Nazi-occupied Ukraine to meet with Mennonite coreligionists. In September 1942, he even applied for German citizenship as a means of greasing the bureaucratic wheels. Ernst Kundt, “Einbürgerung von Professor Dr. B.H. Unruh,” September 8, 1942, R 127518, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin, Germany. Just as Mennonite leaders in the Third Reich struggled to gain the attention of prominent Nazis during the 1930s, however, Unruh was unable to reach wartime Ukraine for primarily religious purposes using civil service contacts. Commenting retrospectively on his 1942 rejection by the East Ministry, Unruh recalled: “At this point, it was entirely clear to me that one path alone could lead to my goal [of reaching Ukraine]: namely through the Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom [Himmler].” Unruh to Hein, July 25, 1943. Unruh never actually reached Ukraine: he planned to visit in early 1943 after his visit with Himmler, but unfavorable military conditions other factors consistently delayed his trip until the late summer, at which time the SS had begun evacuating Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies due to Red Army advances.
6. This was a new development given that Mennonites with church membership had been joining the Nazi Party since 1920. Around August 1937, NSDAP Ortsgruppe Rom temporarily stripped Paul Reymann of his membership. Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. At nearly the same time, a Nazi Party court in Tübingen questioned the membership of a Mennonite farmer named Daniel Schneider. Emil Händiges to Arbeitsausschuß der Vereinigung, September 24, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS.
7. Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, and Gustav Reimer visited the Brown House on July 6, 1938. During the meeting, Unruh emphasized: “As a church we unconditionally support the [Nazi] Party. In West Prussia and Danzig, the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the Party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Hendrik van Delden, Benjamin Unruh, Gustav Reimer, and Daniel Dettweiler attended another meeting at the Brown House on March 16, 1939. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, April 14, 1939, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: 1939, MFS.
8. Ruling of NSDAP Kreisgericht Celle I, May 12, 1938, quoted in Goossen, “‘A Small World Power,’” 204.
9. Mennonite leaders contemplated writing to Hitler in August 1937. Emil Händiges to Ernst Crous and Abraham Braun, August 31, 1937, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1937 Jul-Dez., MFS. Church leaders again considered contacting Hitler in August 1943 regarding the use of oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Emil Händiges to Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, and Abraham Braun, August 17, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Instead of approaching Hitler, however, Unruh pursued the matter through his contacts with Himmler, who ultimately approved Mennonites’ exemption from oaths in the Reich Labor Service. Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, February 28, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.
10. The precipitating case concerned a proposed marriage between SS member Heinrich Krüger and a Mennonite woman, Erika Driedger. The head of Germany’s largest Mennonite conference reported on the rejection of this marriage by Himmler: “The communication of the decision landed like a bomb in the ministerial assembly in Kalthof on June 16, 1938, especially since numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as [Nazi] Party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS. Himmler’s decision reflected a recommendation from the head of the Reich Main Security Office that “members of this sect cannot simultaneously be members of the SS clan community.” Chef des Sicherheitshauptamtes to Chef des Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamtes, April 9, 1938, NS 2/220, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany. Quick action by Mennonite churchmen ensured that by 1939, members were once again admitted to the SS clan community, albeit with some suspicion.
11. Händiges to Dettweiler, et al., June 23, 1938. On marriage and the SS “clan community,” see Gudrun Schwarz, Eine Frau on seiner Seite: Ehefrauen in der “SS-Sippengemeinschaft” (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1997).
12. Quoted in Diether Götz Lichdi, Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1977), 141.
13. Himmler met with detachments from Einsatzgruppe D in September 1941 and Einsatzgruppe C in October 1941, shortly before these death squads began wholesale murder of Jewish men, women, and children in and around the two largest Mennonite colonies in Ukraine: Molotschna and Chortitza, respectively. Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 533, 537. See Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-549.
14. One letter from Halbstadt reported: “Naturally Frau Berg, despite her advanced age…inquired about everything; including in the political realm. She has studied the Führer’s [Mein] Kampf with appropriate interest.” Berg reportedly also met with Karl Stumpp, whose East Ministry commando worked to identify and register Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews.Hans Spittler to Emil Händiges, May 7, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS. Berg herself reported meeting with an Einsatzgruppe member (“Among the first Germans [to arrive during the 1941 invasion] was SS-Mann [Heinrich] Wiens, originally from Muntau [Molotschna], who must once have been your student.”), and she deployed casual antisemitism in her correspondence with Unruh. Berg reported that religious life in Molotschna had not yet fully recovered from the Bolshevik period; in her church, “the praying [by a Baptist minister whom Berg disliked] is terrible, all mixed up such that one imagines oneself displaced to a synagogue [Judenschule].” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. April 1942, quoted in Benjamin Unruh, “Nachrichten aus Rußland,” May 22, 1942, Nachlaß Christian Neff, folder: Briefwechsel 1942, MFS.
15. The economics of genocide continued to link Ukraine’s Mennonite colonies with the Holocaust: Himmler ordered that clothes and household goods taken from Jews in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to Halbstadt, Chortitza, and other settlements. Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA. By November 1942, twenty-seven wagons of plunder had been sent from SS-Wirtschaftslager Lublin. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603. Similar aid actions for Ukraine’s Mennonites continued into 1943.
16. Himmler and Hitler met on August 9, 1942 at the Führer’s Werwolf bunker in Ukraine to broadly discuss Ethnic German questions for the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. On this meeting and its aftermath, see Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 266. Himmler and Hitler met again on September 22, 1942 to discuss settlement in and around Crimea, including plans for 40,000 Ethnic Germans in Halbstadt and 15,000 in Chortitza. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 562-568. On the Nazis’ Gotengau settlement plans, see Norbert Kunz, Die Krim unter deutscher Herrschaft (1941-1944): Germanisierungsutopie und Besatzungsrealität (Darmstad: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005), 72-73.
17. Upon arrival, Himmler conferred with the SS officers Hans-Adolf Prützmann, Horst Hoffmeyer, and Hermann Roßner. Then he had one-on-one meetings with SS officers Claus Selzner, Hermann Harm, and Erwin Metzner. Himmler dined, then attended the pageant and spoke to the mayors. He lodged with a Dr. Haus. Around noon on November 1, following a short lunch, Himmler departed for Zaporizhia to view the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 603-604.
18. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, November 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.
19. Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, December 3, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Berg’s special treatment by the SS came at the direct expense of people considered undesirable by the Nazis. The Ethnic German Office provided her with a cow and a house in Halbstadt, and when the SS evacuated this colony to a more westerly part of Ukraine in 1943, officers found a new house for Berg. The SS requisitioned such lodging by force from local Ukrainians. See for example Jakob Neufeld, Tiefenwege: Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse von Russland-Mennoniten in zwei Jahrzehnten bis 1949 (Virgil, ON: Niagra Press, 1958), 125.
20. On December 31, 1942, Himmler met at 2:30pm with Werner Lorenz, Horst Hoffmeyer, Benjamin Unruh, Konrad Meyer, Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann, and Herman Wirth. Himmler, Der Dienstkalender, 660. On January 1, 1943, Himmler lunched at 2:15pm with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, Unruh, Ernst Rode, Josef Tiefenbacher, Karl Gesele, and Werner Grothmann. At 5:00pm, Himmler met with Lorenz, Hoffmeyer, and Unruh. At 9:30pm, Himmler dined with Lorenz, Unruh, Bernhard Frank, and a Captain Rickert. On January 2, Himmler lunched at 2:10pm with Lorenz, Unruh, and Fritz von Scholz. At 5:00pm, Himmler bade farewell to Lorenz and Unruh. Uhl, et al., eds., Die Organisation des Terrors, 64-66.
21. Benjamin Unruh to Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, Christian Neff, Gustav Reimer, and Henrik van Delden, January 6, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS. Unruh further reported: “It has been agreed that Herr Obergruppenführer [Werner] Lorenz will personally take care of our matters, naturally in constant agreement with [Himmler]…. Regarding the resettlement [of Mennonites from the Americas], which will be of unimaginable scope, I do not want to pontificate. I have just been brought into this matter, and it will likely occur as I told our [Mennonite] people when they went overseas: we will get you back again! This assurance lives in the hearts of our brethren!” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.
22. Heinrich Himmler to Konrad Meyer, January 12, 1943, quoted in Czeslaw Madajczyk, ed., Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan (Munich: Saur, 1994), 256. After Meyer drafted the General Plan East in 1942, Himmler charged him with expanding this into a General Settlement Plan for all of Nazi-occupied Europe. According to Himmler’s wishes for this expanded plan, the areas envisioned for Gotengau in southeastern Ukraine were to include “all of Crimea and Taurida.” In the meantime, occupiers’ focus remained on building up smaller Ethnic German “strongholds.” In July 1943, Meyer traveled to Halbstadt to finalize plans to deport non-Germans still living there and to import urban and scattered rural Ethnic Germans from elsewhere in Ukraine. Ibid., 277-281.
23. For example, Gerhard Ritter, “Wunschträume Heinrich Himmlers am 21. Juli 1944,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 5, no. 3 (1954): 162-168.
24. Emil Händiges to Hendrik van Delden and Abraham Fast, May 27, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.
25. When Unruh reported difficulties with local authorities in Danzig-West Prussia regarding the Marienburg home, an SS contact recommend that he appeal directly to Himmler: “I suggest that you explain to the Reichsführer-SS [Himmler]—it must naturally be written in a careful way—that the handling of Mennonites in Danzig and their few private wishes would not be without significance for the attitudes of the Mennonites overseas. And that it would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.” Gerhard Wolfrum to Benjamin Unruh, ca. January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. While Unruh intended to contact Himmler about the matter, it is unclear whether the SS chief ultimately interceded. In any event, Berg arrived at the Marienburg home by March 1944, where Unruh visited her at that time. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.
26. Benjamin Unruh to Helene Berg, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh offered this sentiment in response to Berg’s report that the trek from Ukraine to Poland had required “difficult, yes very difficult efforts.” Helene Berg to Benjamin Unruh, ca. late January 1944, quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, February 3, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.
27. Berg’s postwar recollections say nothing of her wartime encounters with prominent SS officers. After the fall of the Third Reich, she had incentives to downplay former links to Nazism and instead to emphasize her own suffering. Berg was in this respect typical of other Mennonites from Ukraine and also of Germans generally. See Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 218; Elizabeth Heineman, “The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany’s ‘Crisis Years’ and West German National Identity,” American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 354-395.
28. Helene Berg, Unsere Flucht (Winkler, MB: Winkler Printery, 1947), 18. Upon her arrival in western Germany and return to the broader Mennonite community, Berg (then around 88 years old) professed her intention to emigrate to the Americas. Whether she achieved this goal or remained in Europe requires further investigation. Benjamin Unruh spent the rest of his life in West Germany, a somewhat diminished but nevertheless celebrated figure among Mennonites worldwide. A biography by his son, Heinrich Unruh, Fügungen und Führungen: Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, 1881-1959 (Detmold: Verein zur Erforschung und Pflege des Russlanddeutschen Mennonitentums, 2009), gives a sanitized and hagiographic account of Unruh’s life. See Gerhard Rempel, “Book Review: Fügungen und Füherungen,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 2 (2010): 275-278.
In an earlier post to this blog, I explored how speakers of the standard German that is written and spoken in Central Europe have often been critical of the language situation among traditional Anabaptist sectarians who live in predominantly non-German-speaking societies like the United States and Canada. And some English-monolingual modern Mennonites in North America struggle to understand how bilingualism is not a cognitive impairment that endangers speakers’ spiritual health. They consider vernacular languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch), and Hutterite German (Hutterisch) as inadequate for communicating anything beyond everyday needs. Many also assume that bilingualism is a subtractive intellectual condition: if you know one language well, that must mean you can’t speak a second language with equal facility.
The belief that Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Hutterisch are impoverished linguistic vehicles is contradicted by the fact that the Bible has been successfully translated into the first two languages, and translators are currently working to produce a version in the vernacular language of Hutterites. And for those who think that bilingualism is unnatural or unhealthy, well, it is no secret to psychologists and other researchers that the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits to knowing more than one language are manifold.
Another point of linguistic criticism directed at traditional Anabaptists is one that I will focus on here, and that has to do with their knowledge of standard or High German. Consider the image below.
This is the memorial marker for an Amish woman who passed away in Bonduel, Wisconsin, in 2002. The inscription at the top of the stone, “IN DER HIMMEL ISHT RUHE,” translates as “In Heaven there is peace.” Speakers of standard German would have no difficulty understanding this. Nevertheless, the sentence is at odds grammatically and orthographically with how it would ordinarily be written: “IN DEM HIMMEL IST RUHE”. The preposition in requires here the dative form of the masculine article, dem, and the verb ist is spelled without an “h”. Although some German speakers pronounce ist with an “sh” instead of an “s” sound, in German the “sh” sound is rendered as “sch”.
When European German speakers see examples like this memorial inscription, they are inclined to shake their heads at the producers of such texts for their supposedly faulty command of their “mother tongue.” One such critic is a prominent German professor of American studies at the University of Munich who shared his negative assessment of written standard German among Plain people in a three-volume reference work titled (translated) The History of North American Culture.
[T]he mother tongue of [German-speaking] immigrants is overwhelmed by the power of English. … This even applies to groups of speakers who live relatively isolated from the English-speaking majority. The publication Herold der Wahrheit of the Amish sect in Iowa is written in a strange mishmash of English syntax and Mennonite German. (Raeithel 1992, vol. 2, p. 403)
It is true that Anabaptist varieties of High German are at odds with how the language is used by Central Europeans, and the German professor quoted here is actually correct in attributing this divergence in the North American context to two sources, namely the German-derived vernacular languages spoken by groups like the Amish, and English, which most sectarians speak with native proficiency. In the gravestone inscription, for example, the lack of a dative marking on the article is due to the absence of that case in modern Pennsylvania Dutch; and the “sh” spelling is a carryover from English. Where critics like the German professor err, however, is in presuming that such forms of German represent a fall from an earlier state of linguistic grace.
To understand why North American Anabaptist varieties of standard German differ from what is used in contemporary Europe, a historical perspective is necessary. As I wrote in my earlier post, the descriptor “High” in High German has its origins in linguistic geography. The German spoken in northern Central Europe is called “Low” because of the flat landscape; as one proceeds south toward Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy, the dialects in these regions comprise “High German.” The reason why the standard variety used in schools, media, and other relatively formal settings is also called High German is because it derives historically from the written dialects used in the High German dialect area, especially the east-central regions of modern Saxony and Thuringia. Contrary to popular belief, German dialects are not descended from the standard; if anything, it is the other way around.
The beginnings of a movement to develop a more or less unified standard variety of German go back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type in 1439 revolutionized the production of written texts. The Protestant Reformation accelerated the standardization process through the dissemination of a variety of writings, many religious, including Martin Luther’s popular translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1534. Broader access to formal education led to higher rates of literacy, which also promoted the need for a standard variety of German, as did the increasing mobility of users of the language, especially merchants during the nineteenth century.
Yet standard German has never been monolithic, even today. In Austria, for example, a potato is called an Erdapfel, while in Switzerland people purchase a Billet to ride the train. In Germany, the words for these objects are Kartoffel and Fahrkarte. Differences in pronunciation and grammar (as well as spelling, a secondary linguistic phenomenon) can also be found across German-speaking Europe. In many instances, these differences are due to the twin reasons that account for the “mishmash” used by Amish-Mennonite writers in Iowa: Erdapfel derives from the dialects indigenous to Austria, and Billet is borrowed from French, a second language spoken by many Swiss Germans.
The further back in the history of standard German we go, the less standardized it was. Recent scholarship has begun to look closely at the features of regional High German varieties (landschaftliches Hochdeutsch) in earlier eras, especially the nineteenth century (cf. Ganswindt 2017). The legacy of regional High German can be found across German-speaking Europe today in so-called “regiolects,” oral forms of the standard language used by German speakers everywhere that are marked by regionalisms, especially in pronunciation and vocabulary.
When the ancestors of today’s traditional Anabaptist groups left Central Europe in large numbers in the eighteenth century, migrating eastward to Eastern Europe and Russia and westward to North America, the standard German they brought with them in their devotional literature, especially the Bible, hymnals, and prayer books, reflected the contemporary diversity across the varieties of regional High German. At that time, when German speakers put quill to paper, they usually had little concern for uniformity in the way they wrote as long as they were understood by their readers. Going back to the early sixteenth century, even Martin Luther was inconsistent in the way he wrote German. For example, in his 1522 translation of the New Testament he spelled the words for ‘time’ and ‘and’ alternately as both zeyt and zeytt and vnd and vnnd. And Luther spelled the name of the city of Wittenberg in at least 14 different ways over the course of his life (Heine 2016). The early modern English-speaking world was no different. The family name of William Shakespeare, for example, was spelled in multiple ways, including by the Bard himself (e.g., Shaksper, Shakspere, Shakspeare). The variation in how traditionally Anabaptist names have come to be spelled (e.g., Stoltzfus, Stolzfus,Stoltzfoos, Stolzfoos, Stolsfus, Stollzfus, and Stollzfos) is reminiscent of this linguistic flexibility.
By using forms of standard German that are relatively free of strict norms, groups such as the Old Orders, Old Colony Mennonites, and Hutterites are thus heirs to a linguistic tradition with deep roots in Central Europe. That is not to say that traditional Anabaptists in North America are not aware that the High German they read, sing, recite, and on occasion write is different from what speakers of European German use. Recognizing that difference, some will express opinions similar to that of a Hutterite who once remarked to a visitor from Austria, “Mir sein jå kolla Teitschverderber” (We are just German-spoilers; Lorenz-Andreasch 2004). Yet in the same way that traditional Anabaptists are content with living lives that are different from those of outsiders, they are just as satisfied with how they use the German language. In that respect, they are not unlike Swiss, Austrians, and Germans who speak and write their mother tongue in ways that are also uniquely their own.
Ganswindt, Brigitte. 2017. Landschaftliches Hochdeutsch. Rekonstruktion der oralen Prestigevarietät im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.